Rights Violations, Domestic Conflict, Protest & Comics: Interview with Emily Hencken Ritter, PhD
What does it look like to study and teach the topics of political violence, international human rights law, and war, in the U.S.? And how can you use the power of comics to translate your complex written work into simple drawings and messages to reach and persuade a larger audience? If you are a researcher, academic writer, scientist, or producer of any type of complex written work, and you are looking for ways to positively impact more people with your findings, then Dr. Emily Hencken Ritter’s work will not only inspire but also help you. Dr. Ritter is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of Graduate Studies at Vanderbilt University, U.S.A, and the Co-Owner and Business Manager of Sequential Potential Comics (SPC). In this interview you will learn about: Dr. Ritter’s professional journey to co-create and organically scale-up an academic comics focused business with her husband; how her academic interests and research findings transcribe into easily understood and fun comics; how and why you should consider using comics to explain your research/works’ main findings to reach a larger target audience; the importance of studying and working abroad in helping to shed a light on your professional interests; the blessings that come from having caring, supporting, and motivational mentors and the benefits of staying in touch with them throughout your life; why your children should join the Debate Club at their college; the challenging yet crucial classes she currently teaches and the ongoing projects in which she involves students so they may learn about what it is like to conduct academic research as a profession; the transferable skills that doctoral students gain while writing their PHD which should also be applied to industries outside of academia (i.e., international organizations, local government structures, etc.); and much more. The article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable advice to junior scholars who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. As we start our conversation, could you please briefly describe: What is Sequential Potential Comics (SPC)? And how did you come up with the idea to create it?
Sequential Potential is a comics studio that specializes in translating research to non-specialist audiences. We, as social scientists and any kind of researchers or academics, have a need to be able to reach all kinds of audiences. We do not want to talk just to other academics, we want to be able to talk to policymakers and to the people whose lives are relevant for the research that we do.
For example, I am a professor at Vanderbilt University. I study human rights and protest movements. Both of my research themes are relevant to everyday people, marginalized people, or people who are not necessarily reading the op-ed sections of the Washington Post or various academic journal articles. And we, as researchers, need to be able to connect with all kinds of people, not just academics.
My husband and I started Sequential Potential together. He is an artist. We started this business so that we could use the form of narrative and bright wonderful visuals, in order to help connect research ideas, findings, and arguments to a larger audience. We work with scholars and help them translate their very technical work (which is jargon filled) into simple visuals (that are story based), so that they may reach more people.
Q2. For those unfamiliar with your line of work, could you please describe: What are some of your work responsibilities as they relate to the position of a Business Manager and Co-Owner of Sequential Potential?
I have two jobs.
I am a Business Manager at Sequential Potential and a fulltime professor at Vanderbilt University. And so, my role as an Owner and Business Manager is limited in the time that I have to be able to devote to the business. But it is something that is very important to me.
Some of the things that I do, as a Co-Owner of Sequential Potential with my husband, is that we work together and strategize about questions such as: How do we want to grow our business? Who do we want to market to? What strategies do we want to use? Who do we want to hire as contractors? How can we help our contractors create beautiful and engaging work? Do we need to hire more people? Do we need to train people? Do we need to try to help them work together better as a team? How are we going to make this business work long term? How do we make it grow? And where do we want it to go in the future? I also do the bookkeeping, and I help with marketing and sales (although we also have somebody whose job that is).
It is interesting to note that, a lot of our growth has occurred during the COVID pandemic. Most of our contractors are virtual, and they work in different cities. So that is a challenge that we need to navigate moving forward. But the “Great Resignation” meant that so many really talented people left jobs they did not like and entered the creative workforce, such that we had so many really great artists and writers join our company.
Q3. Can you please explain how the process of working with you looks like in practice?
Very often our clients do not know what they want the story to be, but they know that they want to create a comic that is based on their work so, they bring their work to us. To be more specific, clients can choose to send us: a chapter, an abstract, a journal article, or even a full book. Once we receive their work, our script writers read through their work.
Our scriptwriters have advanced degrees, and they have a lot of experience with creating comics and with writing for different types of audiences (both for adults and children). They have an amazing ability to read even technical material and then posit a story. They are very good at thinking about answers to questions such as: Who are the people that are involved? How are they affected? And what is it that we want to say?
The scriptwriters come up with a story and a script. The script includes a description of what each panel will look like (i.e., Who are the characters in it? What are they doing? And what is the background?). Then once the client approves the script, we move the project forward to a line artist who creates the characters and draws in the background. The line artist puts all this new work into the panels, they draw the bubbles for speech, or for narration, and so forth. The black and white version of that line art is sent to the client for approval. Once we get a positive reply, we have a colorist do their work, to make it beautiful and make sure it really pops. In terms of the style, the work can be very serious and somber in style, or it can be something that is directed at children, or it can be something that is really flashy and cool – it all depends on what the researcher is trying to convey, and we work with that.
A clear example of how a collaboration works is that a researcher comes to us saying: This is the main message I want to get across and this is the audience I want to reach. Then, our scriptwriters start their work. Every researcher that we work with can have any kind of input that they want in the creation process (i.e., if they have an idea of what they want) and we will work with them to incorporate their input into the final product. But the researcher can also choose to be completely hands off and leave the entire process to our creatives.
It is important to mention that we accomplish the creative process, meaning we create comics for our clients. We do not necessarily distribute them, because our clients use them for very different kinds of reasons. Sometimes our clients chose to use the final product for: teaching, to market their books, to insert it into their books, to help disseminate the results of their research to the subjects that they surveyed for that same research, or to circulate their results for a public health benefit reason or a conservation benefit (for ecologists), and so forth. We do not do distribution for our clients because there are so many different channels by which the final product we create can later be used. We can help our clients if they need assistance by making suggestions about how they can best package it.
Examples of how SPC translated Dr. Ritter's work into comics. Source: https://www.emilyhenckenritter.com/comic
Q4. On average, what is the timeframe for completing a comics related project together with you?
The timeframe depends on the length of the work that customers send to us.
Generally, to create a comic that includes some text (if it is a single comic page), it takes about four to six weeks. If it is about 4 comic pages, then it takes 6 to 8 weeks. And a big part of the timeframe is dependent on how quickly our clients approve things. This, the art will take the amount of time that it needs depending on the customer. For example, if clients take a long time to get back to us and they have a lot of revisions, then the entire process will of course take longer. But in general, six to eight weeks is a good estimate for the average type of project that we do, which typically are fairly short projects.
Q5. Besides your work with SPC, you are an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Director of Graduate Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Your research focuses on: political violence, international human rights law, and war. When and why did you become interested in researching these topics?
When I did my undergraduate education, I was a student at Webster University, in St. Louis, and I studied abroad for a year. I did a degree in International Relations, because I was interested in other cultures, and I thought politics was interesting. It really did not have a lot of focus (as to why I really wanted to do that), I just thought that I really liked the classes I was taking. And, when I studied abroad, as a part of my program, I did an internship at the World Health Organization. At that same time, I also had the wonderful opportunity to visit the UN organizations in Geneva, several NGOs related to refugees and human rights, and that made me even more excited about studying human rights. I particularly knew that I wanted to teach because I found that presenting the work that I did to my classes (while I was in Geneva) and answering questions about my work was something that was really exciting. And so, I came back to the U.S. and asked my advisor what I should do, and they said that I should get a PhD.
I am a first-generation graduate student. I do not have academics in my background. I came from a rural area and had no idea of what it would be like to go ahead and get a PhD, nor what would be the kind of work that I would even be doing in a graduate career. It was a big shock when I got there. But, with help from my university advisors I applied to a few schools, and I was admitted at Emory University. And, when I started the program, I knew that I wanted to ask questions about human rights but not exactly what I wanted to focus on.
As I was going through school and taking the basic courses that were expected of my graduate program at Emory, I read a lot of research on human rights, and I learned more about what were the kind of the dominant approaches at the time (in the early 2000s). I started to think about how game theory could help us understand human rights a little bit more. It was not something that was very often used to study human rights questions, but I came to the position that human rights violations are not occurring in a vacuum, they are not just state decisions, they are something that is the state acting in conflict with someone who would oppose it. So, I thought that we needed to think about repression within the context of dissent, which is how we often talk about it. I wanted to treat that like an interstate conflict (or a civil war), which was using game theory to better understand strategic expectations. So that is how I arrived at the research agenda that I have.
Currently, I mostly study the relationship between repression and protest actions and how the state strategically tries to anticipate what dissenters are going to do and how dissenters can fight back, and how they can ask for rights more effectively, and things like that. This topic is something that I really care about because it is something that affects people, but it is also something that has been an intellectual journey, and I felt like people were not answering this question in a way in which I felt that it could be answered.
Q6. What are some of the classes that you currently teach? And what are some of the past, current, or upcoming academic projects that you are most passionate about?
I teach a course on Introduction to International Relations. I came to my study of Human Rights from an International Relations perspective because I was studying Conflict. Other people, who study Human Rights, sometimes come to it from a Comparative Politics perspective, because it is an internal policy. So, there are different ways to approach it, but I generally teach International Relations because that is my background.
I teach a course on International Law and Organizations because I have done quite a bit of work on Human Rights Treaties.
And I teach a course on Politics of Human Rights and that is the course where we really get to dig into some of the issues like: repression, protest, and violations that occur because of lack of resources and everything else.
I teach the aforementioned courses at the undergraduate level. And at the graduate level, over the years, I have taught a variety of courses, ranging from game theory and international organizations to research design.
Q7. In retrospect, what were one or two of the most formative or crucial academic experiences that you have had (or academic mentors that you have had) which have helped shape who you are today, as an educator?
One of the things that I feel has been the most useful for me, as an academic, is that while in college, I was in the Debate Team which taught me: how to build critiques; how to critique work in an effective way; and how to offer counter options to address critiques. All these important points are also linked to how you frame a research question. In retrospect, the skills I gained while being part of the Debate Club were later very useful to me.
And when I was in graduate school, I was the graduate assistant for some study abroad programs that were based in Paris. In this capacity, I traveled with students all over Europe to meet with International Organizations (especially the ones related to human rights). And while having that experience (when I was there to support the undergraduates), we visited the ICC (International Criminal Court) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former the Yugoslavia. This allowed me to learn about the politics of these places, firsthand. Further, we could interact with and sit in on trials and meetings, which led me to ask a lot of questions about how treaties work and how international court structures can influence politics outcomes in states that have not been engaged in war yet. So, being a part of the study abroad program was useful for me, as a Graduate Assistant and not as a student.
I would also say that some of the very best work I have done has been with wonderful co-authors who are my peers: meaning they are the people I went to graduate school with or those whom I really connected with along the way. A lot of my thinking, and the way in which I approach projects now (as a solo writer or with other co-authors), have been based on work that I did with people like Courtenay Conrad and Scott Wolford. This is because when I was writing with them, I was learning how to be a scholar. So, that is to highlight that peers can be important mentors to you.
I will say that as a student and then as I have continued to grow in the discipline, I have developed relationships with wonderful mentors. My dissertation mentors were Cliff Carubba (who studies international courts and law and does a lot of game theory) and David Davis (who studies human rights questions). Cliff helped push me, make me feel stronger and that I could do it, and that I was coming up with good ideas. David taught me how to be a whole person while being a scholar and introduced me to the community that is still my home base. I learned how to write from Jeffrey Staton, and I learned to think about challenging authoritarian power from Jennifer Gandhi And these are scholars who have been there for me even as I was not a graduate student anymore. I would meet up with them at conferences, have a coffee, or I would call them up when I had a question and needed some advice. Your mentors are your mentors for life, and I have been that way as I have been training graduate students too. Your mentors do not stop being your mentor: once you graduate, they still move forward with you.
When I was an undergraduate, my advisor was Warren Rosenblum (a professor of history at Webster University), and I remained close with him as well. Which is to say that he helped encourage me to go to graduate school, he helped me consider why I should go to graduate school, and he was a highly supportive mentor to me as I was in undergrad.
Two other important mentors to me, from the wider discipline, are people who read my work early and who helped me to meet other people in the discipline and think about my work in a bigger picture kind of way. Jessica Trounstine and Douglas Gibler were both mentors to me in my jobs. When I started new jobs, they were there to be colleagues to me and to help me navigate the new place where I was. They also helped give me strategies on how to publish and move towards tenure. They were very practical, in the type of advice that they gave me, and in the way that they supported me.
And Christian Davenport and Will Moore, were both scholars who were at different institutions from me. I have never been in an institution with either of them, but they read my work and they brought me into communities which were studying human rights right from the beginning of my career. Both Will and Christian are scholars who think big about the world. They do not just answer a single research question; they look at the whole about of what we know about a topic, ask really big questions, and think about what we are missing in big ways. And that has been something that you do not learn in graduate school: it is something that you have to learn over a long time. So, the two of them were instrumental in bringing me into scholarly communities and being excited about the work I was doing. They also pushed me where I was being too small or too narrow and they helped me think about things in a bigger way.
This was a really long answer to your question, but there are so many people (like: teachers, colleagues, friends, and others) who have been very important to me, when I think about what I do today.
Q8. Given that you are a co-founder of a company/art studio, and you also work in academia: What are your views on the transferable skills that one may gain within the academic world that they can easily apply to the world of business?
Previously in my career, I was focused on how state authorities or security agents (i.e., police, military, and the leaders themselves of a country) are part of a repressive process (i.e., How do they interact with protest actions?) And, in the last few years, I have turned towards a different kind of approach when studying the question of repression. This shift comes in part from, Will Moore who was an incredible professor. He worked at several institutions, and he ended his career at Arizona State University. He passed away in 2017. He always encouraged people to read outside of Political Science and so, some friends and I, who were all connected with Will, in one way or another (all Political Science scholars), have created a book club. We meet once a month and we read fiction, memoirs, and other types of books which are all related to political violence. So, this is definitely not a happy book club. It is a book club where we are reading outside the field of Political Science: we are reading about experiences, instead of reading about the science of it. And, in doing so, I have come to think about repression in a different way. As such, I have two types of projects that I am currently working on.
One is focused on bureaucracy as a repressive apparatus of the state. So, how does the state use bureaucratic structures and bureaucratic agents to repress people, through unequal service provision or, through denial of services, or things like that? So, rather than studying violence, as we tend to do in Political Science, we are studying the bureaucratic process and how states use it to repress people and keep them from challenging the state.
And then the other project is to think about civilians, as agents of repression. So, we typically study the political actors, or the security agents that are agents of the state (as in: a leader orders their authorities to carry out violence but, in fact, there are quite a few situations in which the leaders/agents delegate the use of violence to civilians). And this is something that we talk about in human rights related scholarship, but we do not really talk about it in repressive scholarship. In that: sometimes, rights violations occur not because they are ordered, or because they are explicit policy, but instead it is because the state fails to protect. And so, if the state fails to protect strategically, civilians will use violence against minoritized groups in ways that can control them from challenging the state. So, it is a repressive process, but it is one from which we are missing the key agents and processes by which this occurs. So, I have I have some work looking at race riots in the United States and how the police encourage civilians to take part in mob violence. And I also research how women are repressed in the home and in private spheres, as a part of a controlling mechanism by the state. So, thinking about these agents, as a part of the strategic process (bureaucratic agents or civilians), is where my work is right now.
Q9. How do you conduct your work today and how do you make sure that your students understand how it is to conduct research as a profession?
When I was pre-tenure, I did most of my work by myself or with co-authors, sometimes working with graduate students, sometimes working with peers, and I tend to really like to work with others because I want to bounce ideas off of them. I want them to tell me that I am wrong, that something I say does not make sense, or to challenge me. Otherwise, I feel like I am kind of just talking to myself, and who knows where that is going to go. So, I like to work with others, a lot.
Since then, I have started a research lab called the Research on Conflict and Collective Action Lab, at Vanderbilt University, and this is a lab of about 50 undergraduate students, from all different majors, with all kind of skills sets, from across the university. They work in teams to support research projects by the many Conflict and Violence scholars that we have at Vanderbilt. And so, I use teams of undergraduate students to do all kinds of work that supports my research. For instance, they do case research, to figure out what bureaucratic repression looks like in one state or another. Or they code data (for example: I had them code all of this amazing new data that I have now for 200 years of race riots in the United States). I have had them collect data on international organizations. I have also had them do literature reviews.
I believe very strongly that having more people involved in a project, with more diverse viewpoints, and more different approaches to how they do research, makes the research better. We want to bring as many voices as we can: different majors, different ethnicities, different experiences, different parental backgrounds, and different socio-economic backgrounds, in order to answer questions together, because it makes the answer better, and essentially more whole.
Students get to see if research is something that they want to do, of it is an experience that they want to have or they want to move on. But we encourage them to develop skillsets that are right for them and that will allow them to think differently about things that happen to them in their everyday life and then maybe get a career in this.
I think that there are so many ways that a PhD in Political Science transfers skills to other areas and, I would like to talk about the kind of skills that you only get from getting a PhD. When you get a PhD in Political Science you study the content of political science. Meaning, you answer questions such as: What do you know about conflict? What do you know about voting or public opinion, or whatever your topic is? But you also study a slate of methodology (like statistical analysis) to try and figure out how you know something is a part of a process, and how can we identify that this is a better answer than a different answer is. You learn how to draw conclusions from evidence, from patterns of evidence (whether that is qualitative or quantitative, archival, large-n, small-n, interviews, or however you are doing that); how to determine that the evidence you collected is suggesting that your answer is appropriate; etc. And those skills are the skills of science, and of drawing scientific inference or conclusions. And that is something that is incredibly useful for analyzing whether a program is effective or not. For example: Is this program that an NGO puts in the field changing the behaviors that we want it to change? To answer that question, you have to think like a scientist: You have to pose a research question (this is effective because of this) and you have to be able to measure effectiveness in one way or another (whether it is imperfect or not). And how do you take that evidence and answer the question: Was this a useful program? What can we do differently? And, so that program effectiveness logic is a scientific logic that is useful for NGO programming, for governmental work, for think tanks that are supporting governmental work, for working at your local department of transportation about where we should spend our money on the most effective programs, etc.
Social science is also a process of communication, and I think that all academia is. We work for public and private institutions that are non-profits, that are supposed to be for the public good. Whether you are working at the University of California, the University of Alabama, or Vanderbilt University (which are all places that I have worked at), the mission of that organization is to use research for the better of humanity. And so, if it is going to be that it cannot just be that we do research and talk to each other. We need to be able to do research and talk to the people who make the changes for the better. So that might be that we develop an invention that helps the military, or it helps government in some way. We might answer questions about what policies are going to be useful, or how we should be thinking about political problems. And you want to talk to policy makers about that, or you do research on how protest movements can be successful, and you want to reach out to people who are marginalized. We want to talk about how the people can use the courts to their benefit, or how do you make decisions about voting in a reasonable way. Or, what are the things we need to know about ideology? These are all questions that are not partisan, but they are part of something that we know about as scholars and we need to convey those ideas to the everyday people who make all of those decisions.
To conclude, I also think that getting a PhD also helps create a framework about public good provision and how we create a better society, whether that is through dance, or the humanities, or it is through chemistry, or it is through any of the social sciences.
Q10. To conclude, would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young scholars interested in following a similar line of research and work such as yours?
I would like to say that the work you choose to do matters and that there is not a single path through your career.
When you think about your career in terms of narrow focused questions, such as: How do you get a job? How do you get academic tenure? How do you get promoted? And how do you get your work noticed? Those questions are functional in nature, but they narrow your vision. Instead, you should think about questions such as: What is it that you care about? What are the questions that you really want to answer? Who do you want to work with? And what are the kinds of impacts that you want to have on society? When you work towards answering the second set of questions, then those answers are the things that are going to help lead you not only to the more creative work, but also to better work and even to more rigorous work. And my comments are not meant to deny or diminish the difficulty of the process you will have to undergo to obtain academic tenure, or of the strategic nature of what you need to do in order to meet specific milestones. But, when you research something that you care about, you will do much better work then when trying to decide about what topic can get you academic tenure.
Overall, I believe that we can do better work as a community: (1) when we ask questions that are big, hard, and important, and (2) when we focus on supporting each other within the field and, when the time comes, when we place our focus on supporting the students who are coming behind us.
Thank you for reading.
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Emily Hencken Ritter, PhD
Associate Professor of Political Science
Director of Graduate Studies
Vanderbilt University | USA
Co-Founder and Business Manager
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Ritter’s work?
To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications.
Contentious Compliance: Dissent and Repression under International Human Rights Law (with Courtenay R. Conrad). 2019. Oxford University Press. Available to purchase here.
Other publications and public scolarship:
Oil Discoveries, Civil War, and Preventive State Repression (with Peter Carey, Curtis Bell, and Scott Wolford), 2022. Journal of Peace Research. 59 (5): 648-662. Available here.
National Leaders, Political Survival, and Interstate Coalitions (with Scott Wolford), 2016. International Studies Quarterly, 60 (3): 540-551. Available here.
“Abortion Bans are a Tool of Political Repression,” July 5, 2022. Political Violence @ a Glance. Available here.
“Best Political Violence Fiction of 2021,” with Jessica Maves Braithwaite. February 4, 2022. Political Violence @ a Glance. Available here.
To see a complete list of Dr. Ritter’s publications and research please access the following website: https://www.emilyhenckenritter.com/research
Illustrations by: The main article photo shows a comic made by SPC about Dr. Ritter’s work. The profile photo included on this page was provided by the interviewee.
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